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Hey Jews, don’t talk about Israel on Passover — ‘New York Times’

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This is interesting: the New York Times has run two pieces in the last couple of days arguing that religion has nothing to do with the real world. Passover is offered as a source of mystery, but not as a window on what is happening in Israel and Palestine. These pieces have the exact opposite argument to Marc Ellis’s and Robert Cohen’s; those Jews see Passover as a holiday in which Palestine must be dealt with.

Here are the Times pieces:

David Gregory reviews Abigail Pogrebin’s book My Jewish Year, about her spiritual pilgrimage of celebrating 18 Jewish holidays, which was prompted in part by her discussion with Leon Wieseltier. Gregory says in the review that Wieseltier also brought him to greater religious study, and warns the reader not to mix up religion and the real world. No, religion is about things unseen:

Living up to one’s faith is never easy, and opening your heart to the spiritual touch takes time…

To me, the essential question is, Where is God? For Pogrebin, as for many Jews, this is a complicated question — she is a believer, “not in God as all-powerful, but in God as protector and healer.” The question of God is, in my view, one we must spend more time exploring if we are to find meaning and purpose as a community beyond culture and debates over Israel. I prefer going deeper into Jewish liturgy to celebrating the new year for trees.

The other article is by the rightwing Zionist Shmuel Rosner, datelined Tel Aviv, titled “Keep Your Politics Out of Passover.” Rosner tells readers that all the political uses of Passover are a waste of time, or worse:

the modern Haggadot [Passover stories] are a curse. They take a historically unifying celebration of a people and turn it into a politically divisive event. Some Jews celebrate their Passover by mourning an occupation of land; others celebrate by highlighting the reclamation of the same land. Some Jews celebrate by stressing the need for compassion for the stranger; others celebrate by underscoring the merits of tribalism. Passover is a time for Jews to acknowledge their shared roots and their covenants of fate and destiny. Yet many new Haggadot define Jewish groups by pitting them against one another.

They also trivialize Judaism and its sacred festivals and texts. And this is not unique to Passover. There’s a growing tendency among Jews — whether rabbis, teachers, community leaders or lay people — to employ Jewish texts to score political points. A Passover Seder during which you spend time criticizing the Trump administration’s immigration policies or regretting the evacuation of Israeli settlements from Gaza is not a “relevant” Seder, it is a mediocre and redundant one. Passover is for celebrating the transcendent, the mysterious, the eternal, not rehashing worn-out political debates. It is a night to find new meaning in an old script, not to force the text into a preconceived political platform.

These arguments in the Times interest me because they reflect the established Jewish community’s great difficulty with encountering Israel as an occupier and oppressor. When in fact that is part of the job description of religion: the community defines itself and reckons with the world. I am not talking about spirituality here. Yes, spirituality is part of religion’s work, too; but when you cite the “historically unifying celebration of a people,” you are describing the social purpose of organized religions. As Elif Batuman put it: religion offers “a way to make meaning out of the world, a way to find community, a way to have continuity with history.”

There is no higher role for the Jewish religion right now than to deal with the Jews’ experience of history in our time. For me that means seeking an understanding of why two or three generations of Jews in the wake of the Holocaust were smitten by Zionism as the answer to the Jewish problem in the west, and what has been wrought by that adherence. This is why I insist that Zionism is a religious ideology: almost all Jewish institutions have spent the last 50 years telling us that Judaism is today defined by Zionism, and they should be taken at their word, and engaged by young Jews over that faith. Rightwing Zionists Leon Wieseltier and Shmuel Rosner have both been messengers of that ardent and highly-successful religious project, so of course they have zero interest in it being interrogated. The Times is, as usual, practicing avoidance.

Philip Weiss

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10 Responses

  1. eljay on April 10, 2017, 11:51 am

    … Passover is … a night to find new meaning in an old script, not to force the text into a preconceived political platform. …

    Zionists have all year to force Judaism into Zionism. During Passover they should have the courtesy to leave Judaism alone and, instead, force the Holocaust into a pre-conceived political platform.

  2. annie on April 10, 2017, 1:25 pm

    Zionism is a religious ideology: almost all Jewish institutions have spent the last 50 years telling us that Judaism is today defined by Zionism, and they should be taken at their word, and engaged by young Jews over that faith. Rightwing Zionists Leon Wieseltier and Shmuel Rosner have both been messengers of that ardent and highly-successful religious project so of course they have zero interest in it being interrogated. The Times is, as usual, practicing avoidance.


  3. wondering jew on April 11, 2017, 7:53 am

    Shmuel Rosner is a right wing zionist. Leon Wieseltier is a left wing zionist. Journalists know how to differentiate. Competent journalists know how to differentiate.

    • wondering jew on April 11, 2017, 9:18 am

      A complete thought piece on Jewishness, Judaism and Passover at this time of year, in 2017, would certainly include comments on Israel Palestine. to omit such comments would be like talking about the civil rights movement and omitting the book of Exodus (not the one by Leon Uris).
      JJ Goldberg had/has a piece in the Forward about the two different Haggada’s and thus the two different seders that exist in Jewish homes in America- the traditional Haggada and the liberation theology haggada that universalizes Exodus rather than focuses on nationality like the traditional haggada. that the nyt times publishes rosner’s response to jj goldberg is in the purview of mondoweiss as helicopter critic/heckler of the nyt times, but is really not my concern.
      i feel that israel is the jewish issue of our day. and i consider this day as having begun on may 1st, 1945 rather than on may 15, 1948. the end of the european war and the revelation of the depth of the slaughter experienced by the jewish european civilization was the dawn of a new era in Judaism and Jewishness. (Certainly true for Ashkenazi Jewry, but relevant nonetheless to all Jewries.) Belief in God after Auschwitz had different implications, or so wrote Judaism’s centrist teachers.
      Zionism as the enemy of the Palestinians is Zionism that views the cause of the Palestinians (for political dignity) as dismissible. Zionism was born in the midst of some ugly zeitgeists that included some virulent brands of nationalism and brutal (evil) brands of colonialism.
      Nazism was not the logical end of nationalism, but it was the historic culmination of a period of particularly virulent nationalism and thus for those of us whose emotions taint our thoughts, Nazism is considered the epitome of nationalism.
      There was a Jewish population explosion in the 19th century, this is a fact that is not often mentioned.
      The quietist attitude of waiting for Messiah was busted by the Shabtai Zevi movement. on the religious side quietism resumed with the Hasidic movement replacing Zion with the rebbe and Jerusalem with the rabbi’s table.
      There may have been an element of Judaism that could not survive modernity. A nation that wanders (and changes at various times through conversions, that is new recruits) and evolves, but defines itself by religion cannot survive Voltaire. The enlightenment in its purest sense is against the nationalism of the Jews for their nationalism was expressed in a religion.
      The haggada is a very very zionist non quietist text. before the establishment of israel, it could be read in an extremely radical sense: jew, get off your ass and defeat the pharoah and return to jerusalem. that is the natural deep reading of the text.
      now that israel has been established: two dynamics come into play: 1. rooting for the underdog from a universal point of view requires focusing on people other than jews. (leftist universalist communist socialist jews tended in this direction even at a time when the oppression of jews was a competing possible concern. but the birth of israel changed the oppression of jews dynamic that existed from 1881 to 1945 (plus stalin), so i think the birth of israel is important here.) and 2. jews with power oppressed the palestinians, so rooting for freedom becomes rooting against a jewish power dynamic.
      i write the words jewish power and right away am cognizant of the denizens of this comment section who dote on anne frank and jewish power means something substantial to them as the power in the world that needs to be defeated.
      i write the words jewish power cognizant of the jews as opinion makers and a powerful cultural force in america. i write in an america that is less sturdy in my eyes today after having elected trump, in an america unsure of itself, not at peace with itself. i write worried about american nationalism in a way that i was not worried two years ago. i write worried that american unity (or domestic tranquility) will not last to the end of this century.
      but my focus is jewish power and jewish power is not a problem in america today except vis a vis support of Israel, which i feel is exaggerated and not reflective of reality. in fact the middle east is a mess and since we have no laboratory of an alternate universe it is impossible to tell what role the establishment of israel has played in the political history of the middle east, but we can say that it is a mess. but the lopsided support for israel in congress has been a result of campaign contributions, that is to say that it has corrupted democracy rather than abetted democracy and this is a problem.
      one of the goals of peace (although it feels so far off that it’s ridiculous to think about) is reconciliation and regarding the nakba the distance from true reconciliation is quite distant. I sense that israel is not about to disappear, the israeli flag will fly over the knesset or certainly over tel aviv for quite some time to come. this one state solution illusion is useful on many levels: thought and forcing the israeli jews to face facts, but still it is the occupation that is the cause of the moment in my mind.
      did many jews replace the haggada with a reading of the UN report like robert cohen advocated, last night in their seder. I certainly hope not. were there political words at some seder tables. i hope so. were there political biting of tongues at many tables. i’m sure.

      • Mooser on April 11, 2017, 12:34 pm

        Ummm, “Yonah”, sweetie, have you ever seen the acronym…no it’s not an acronym, sorry, it’s just an abbreviation, usually rendered “tldr” (sometimes “tl;dr”)?

        Or maybe “Yonah isn’t writing for us, he’s writing for the scholars who will one day gather his archive into an inspired text, “The Meshuggana

  4. Liz on April 11, 2017, 9:23 am

    Thanks so much for this lovely assessment of the Times. This is so typical of liberal Zionism to insist on one day where politics don’t interfere with the holiday meal. It’s a disgusting amount of privilege and victimhood and an excuse to not talk about what’s really going on in the world while passing the haroset and talking about how we were slaves in Egypt.

  5. Ronald Johnson on April 11, 2017, 10:59 am

    Let’s address the errant notion of a one-time “diaspora” induced by the Romans, justifying a “return” to the “native” land. Three references:

    The Jews, in their various sects, were in a diaspora even before the Roman conquest, not particularly desiring to return the place of origin of their religion, because most diasporans were the descendants of converts, or earlier migrants, from an era of proselytization or the pursuit of trading in tin or other commodities. (if the legend of Joseph of Arimathea has any truth) Recall that the first book of Caesar’s Wars was about preventing the Helvetians from migrating to Provence. In ancient times world Jewry showed little interest in returning to Palestine, and the place would not have supported a population of that size, if they tried.

  6. Elizabeth Block on April 11, 2017, 6:33 pm

    I’m one of a group of non- or anti-Zionist Jewish women (and others, not all Jewish, not all women) who have a … shall we say a presence, along the line of the annual Walk with Israel. We get a lot of hostile reactions, threats from the JDL – such brave men, willing to threaten women old enough to be their grandmothers – but my all-time favourite was the woman who said, “This is just a march. Why are you bringing politics into it?”

    Supporting Zionism isn’t political, opposing it is.

  7. Hemlockroid on April 24, 2017, 10:23 pm

    Those of us who learned to read out of the OT know Jews wondered into Palestine. There’s familiarity but an instruction not to overidentify with land, any land.

    • Mooser on April 25, 2017, 11:53 am

      If I remember my Scripture lessons, we knocked the Canaanites around, and colonized the place, while pretty thoroughly absorbing the Canaanite religion.

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